When it comes to Great Britain and sport the first thing that comes to our mind is the rich English football Premier League. There is no denying that we are also attracted by English football. However, there is also no denying that our real and solely passion is ice hockey. We started to be fascinated by British hockey in 2017 when Davos and Cardiff Devils faced each other during the Champions Hockey League. Unfortunately, we couldn’t attend the game in person, but it was enough to watch the game on tv to realize that the Devils have a great fan base. That was a show, it’s as simple as that.
From that moment on we’ve been following, even though in a casual way, the EIHL (Elite Ice Hockey League) and then we were pleased to watch the great ride of the Great Britain national team that firstly was promoted in the top tier of World hockey in 2018 and then saved its place during the 2019 Worlds in Slovakia.
We mean, from the outside our impression is that ice hockey in Great Britain is having a great moment. And it’s a great pleasure for the GB hockey that was a force in the international scene in the early 20th century. A force capable of winning a bronze Olympic medal in 1924 and a gold Olympic medal in 1936 other than three medals – two silvers and one bronze – at the Worlds between 1935 and 1938.
Whoever has been following us since a while knows that we’re not simply happy telling stories, but we like to deepen. So, we want to do also in this case. We had the chance to know James Reeve from Great Britain, British sport writer who follows ice hockey and other sports.
We wanted to talk with him about British hockey. In order, to understand how things are going in the Queen’s kingdom and to talk about the national team and the EIHL.
The first question is the most obvious one.
More than 3’000 people on average attended EIHL games last season. The national team is back in the top tier of world hockey for the first time since 1994. GB hockey is having a great time. Is that an accident or the fruit of the hard work that has been done on and off the ice?
Attendances will be heavily skewed, with a handful of teams (Sheffield Steelers, Cardiff Devils, Nottingham Panthers etc) having much larger arenas while some teams have significantly smaller rinks. That said, British hockey in general has been improving over the past few years and the national team has largely benefitted from the higher profile of the top tier.
However, the league is still not perfect and there are many things that need to be worked on if they want to truly attract more interest in the sport. There seems to be the aim of unifying the different leagues under one governing body, which I think will keep pushing things forward in a positive way.
Hard work and a bit of luck can go hand in hand with success though and I’d say it’s a bit of both in that regard, though the people that are working to make the game better are certainly working as hard as anyone could.
Let’s start by talking about the national team. Great Britain was able to save its place in the top tier last year in Slovakia. Can you tell us how you lived the Worlds as British?
It was phenomenal to watch Team GB go up against the very best in the world, such as Canada and USA. Seeing them clinch survival with that fateful Ben Davies OT winner against France is a sight that I will remember for many years to come. The tournament itself was so special, as it had been 25 years since GB were in the top tier of the World Championships, so naturally I had to buy the jersey!
It was shown on FreeSports, a television station that is growing its reputation for showing British hockey here in the UK and the coverage was excellent. I think a lot of people are disappointed not to be watching the team playing in this year’s iteration, but it does mean that we stay in the top tier for another year.
The impression is that Great Britain is doing a terrific job. Do you think it’s possible for GB to establish itself in the top tier of world hockey? And how do you rate the work done with the youth and therefore with the chance to have a future at the top levels?
I think it will be many many years before GB could ever be considered in the same breath as some of the top nations in hockey. The fans of the sport here are diehards and are some of the best people I’ve ever come across, but getting casuals or people that don’t really know much about it is still the biggest challenge.
We have started to see some truly talented British players come through in recent years, with Liam Kirk being drafted by the Arizona Coyotes in 2018, Mason Alderson eligible for this year’s NHL draft and even Alex Graham, who has dominated the second tier since he was 15, also potentially having opportunities to develop further in North America.
I think that if we as a nation can encourage and nurture the next generation of hockey players in the same way as some that are progressing, then we’ll be heading in a positive direction, much like Germany. But interest in the sport is something that still needs to be improved greatly.
What was the media coverage for the Worlds in GB where normally football takes the main scene?
Sadly not as good as it should have been. FreeSports covered everything excellently, but major media outlets barely touched upon them, with the BBC having an article after the France victory but little else in terms on coverage. I would like to see a lot more hockey getting covered by major outlets, as it is a great step towards gaining more interest in the sport.
I cover a team locally and some people have recognised me at games from that. Imagine if people from the likes of the BBC or Sky Sports started to truly pay closer attention to the sport and increase its profile in the UK?
Let’s keep on talking about media. Is ice hockey followed in Great Britain? Does the EIHL have good media coverage (TV, internet site, blogs and so on…)?
In terms of mainstream media, there’s not a huge amount. Locally there are some great people that cover different teams, whether that’s in newspapers, on blogs or for radio. Chris Ellis (@ChrisEllyEllis on Twitter) has to be the most notable I’d say for his coverage of the Nottingham Panthers and Team GB for the BBC.
Then you have people such as Mark Rackham (@MarkUkLeaf), who is an avid hockey fan and is so devoted to Team GB and regular provides great insight and coverage of the team and players on his blog and podcast.
Caitlin Berry (@caitlinsports) also is someone that British hockey fans should be paying attention to, being Mark’s podcast co-host. She is a scout for DobberProspects, focused on North American hockey, but she is a big time Cardiff Devils fan and regularly posts GIFs of games with great analysis and is an exceptionally knowledgeable person that also covers Team GB with huge dedication and passion.
I would love to see more coverage of the sport across the board and I’d love to see some of the bigger news outlets work with the people covering the sport on a local/regional scale as it could be the first steps towards improving the sport’s image across the country and attract a larger following.
In Switzerland we had the chance to know the Cardiff Devils thanks to the CHL. Which are the best teams in Great Britain? And how would you rate the EIHL?
There’s generally a view of the ‘big four’ in British hockey, with the Belfast Giants, Cardiff Devils, Nottingham Panthers and Sheffield Steelers often the most competitive teams in recent years. Coventry Blaze had a golden spell a few years ago and teams such as the Guildford Flames could certainly work their way up to the top if they can remain in the league for a few more years.
The EIHL generally is on par with the third tier of North American hockey, the ECHL. Players that perform well in that league tend to be comparable in the EIHL, with some former NHL and AHL players also having success when journeying across the pond. The days of the league simply being a place for enforcers to go to play out their career is over and the quality on the ice is improving, slowly but surely.
Rules. How many imports can play in the teams? And what is the federation doing in order to help the young guns?
There’s a significant difference between the levels in British hockey regarding import players. In the EIHL, there is a maximum of 14 for any game-night line-up, so the majority of teams are filled with Canadians, Americans and some Europeans. Drop down a level and the rules are far different, with only two imports allowed last season, with neither of them allowed on the ice at the same time.
Due to work permit restrictions, only players from Europe that are classed as imports are typically signed. Though, certain players that count as imports in the EIHL are classed as British players in the NIHL National, allowing teams to work around the restrictions, something that some teams do exceptionally well.
There’s not too much of a drive to work with young players throughout the British system, but players tend to get plenty of opportunities in the second tier, while the top tier tends to focus on players that have already proven themselves at that level. If you’re good enough, then teams will take a chance on you in the EIHL, whereas the NIHL’s reliance on British players generally provides the majority of opportunities for younger players.
Who are the best players of the league? And on which players can Team GB count in the future?
Typically, the best players in the league come from North America, with the likes of Joey Haddad and Gleason Fournier. Some dual-citizen players impress for GB, with Brendan Connelly being one of the top points producers last season. Ben Bowns is Britain’s shining star in goal, putting in solid performances for club (Cardiff) and country, as seen during the World Championships.
Players such as Liam Kirk, Alex Graham and Mason Alderson will certainly become mainstays in the national side and hopefully a few more can emerge as real contenders over the next few years.
How are the infrastructures (arenas…) in GB?
There’s a wide variety if I’m honest. The arenas are, understandably, amazing, while some of the smaller, older rinks are in quite a sorry state. Planet Ice, a chain of rinks around the country, have a couple that are impressive enough for international games to take place, include MK Arena, home of the Milton Keynes Lightning, which is one of the best of the smaller sized rinks.
Finances and consistency with the facilities available is something that needs to improve drastically over the next few years if Britain hopes to become a respected hockey nation in the future.
Last question. How do you see the future of GB hockey?
I think if the leagues and associations can come together and work out a long-term strategy for building the game then GB can have a very bright future. Better relationships and coverage from media outlets, particularly larger ones, can help in a significant way. Otherwise, we’ll remain an after thought in the sport like we have been for too many years.
Thank you very much, James!
What can we say? We can only hope for the bright future. There are many hockey enthusiasts in Great Britain, and they all deserve to be respected. It will not be easy to make ice hockey a primary sport though… actually, it’s not easy for each country. Let’s think about countries like Italy, France, Poland and so on. There are many hidden fans but they all risk having to jump through hoops right to follow their favourite sport.
We will be back talking about GB hockey anyway. We will definitively do so!
We watched the highlights of several games. We noticed that there is passion and that games are entertaining. We mean, you haven’t heard the last of British hockey on our website.
See you soon guys!